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The mythical Helen of Troy has inspired poets and artists for centuries as the woman whose beauty sparked the Trojan War. But Helen’s character is more complex than it seems. When considering the many Greek and Roman myths that surround Helen, from her childhood to her life after the Trojan War, a layered and fascinating woman emerges.
Helen is among the mythical characters fathered by Zeus. In the form of a swan, Zeus either seduced or assaulted Helen’s mother Leda. On the same night, Leda slept with her husband Tyndareus and as a result gave birth to four children, who hatched from two eggs.
From one egg came the semi-divine children, Helen and Polydeuces (who is called Pollux in Latin), and from the other egg came the mortals Clytemnestra and Castor. The boys, collectively called the Dioscuri, became the divine protectors of sailors at sea, while Helen and Clytemnestra would go on to play important roles in the saga of the Trojan War.
In another, older myth, Helen’s parents were Zeus and Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance. In this version, too, Helen hatched from an egg.
Helen was destined to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Her reputation was so great that even as a young child, the hero Theseus desired her for his bride. He kidnapped her and hid her in his city of Athens, but when he was away, Helen’s brothers, the Dioscuri, rescued her and brought her home.
As an adult, Helen was courted by many suitors, out of whom she chose Menelaus, the king of Sparta. But though Menelaus was valiant and wealthy, Helen’s love for him would prove tenuous.
Around this time there was a great event among the Olympians: the marriage of the goddess Thetis to the mortal Peleus. All the gods were invited to attend except for Eris, whose name means “discord.”
Furious at her exclusion, Eris comes to the party anyway and tosses an apple to the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite on which is written “for the most beautiful.” Each goddess claims the apple is meant for her and the ensuing dispute threatens the peace of Olympus.
Zeus appoints the Trojan prince Paris to judge who is most beautiful of the three. To sway his vote, each goddess offers Paris a bribe. From Hera, Paris would have royal power, while Athena offers victory in battle. Aphrodite promises him Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife, and Paris names her winner of the competition.
To claim the prize promised by Aphrodite, Paris travels to the court of Menelaus, where he is honored as guest. Defying the ancient laws of hospitality, Paris seduces Helen and flees with her in his ship.
Paris sails home to Troy with his new bride, an act which was considered abduction regardless of Helen’s complicity. When Menelaus discovers that Helen is gone, he and his brother Agamemnon lead troops overseas to wage war on Troy.
There is, however, another version of Helen’s journey from Mycenae put forth by the historian Herodotus, the poet Stesichorus, and the playwright Euripides in his play Helen. In this version, a storm forces Paris and Helen to land in Egypt, where the local king removes Helen from her kidnapper and sends Paris back to Troy.
In Egypt, Helen is worshipped as the “Foreign Aphrodite.” Meanwhile, at Troy, a phantom image of Helen convinces the Greeks she is there. Eventually, the Greeks win the war and Menelaus arrives in Egypt to reunite with the real Helen and sail home.
Herodotus argues that this version of the story is more plausible because if the Trojans had had the real Helen in their city, they would have given her back rather than let so many great soldiers die in battle over her.
Helen on her way to Troy
Others assert, however, that Paris and Helen did sail to Troy, and that during the voyage Hera sent heavy storms, forcing them to put in at Sidon, a Phoenician city, where Paris availed himself of the opportunity for purchasing richly broidered robes which he, on his return to Troy, gave to his mother Hecabe.
Fearing persecution, Helen and Paris spent much time, both in Phoenicia and Cyprus, before coming to Troy. But still others say that Paris and Helen made the trip from Sparta to Troy in three days, having a fair wind and a smooth sea.
The Oath of Tyndareus invoked
In any case Menelaus, having learned on his return from the funeral of Catreus in Crete that his precious wife had been ravished, invoked The Oath of Tyndareus, forcing, with the help of his brother Agamemnon, all princes that had sworn it to join the coalition that was to sail to Troy in order to demand, by persuasion or by force, the restoration of Helen and the property that the seducer Paris, breaking all laws of hospitality, had stolen.
Wisdom and beauty
The Trojans did not yield to persuasion, and that is why a prolonged siege and war ensued, in which many perished for the sake of Helen. Yet, not even the Elders of Troy felt that they could fully condemn the folly of war. And this is how wisdom paid tribute to beauty:
"Who on earth could blame the Trojan and Achaean men-at-arms for suffering so long for such a woman's sake? Indeed, she is the very image of an immortal goddess."
But as their years had made them acquainted with restraint and moderation, they also added:
"All the same, and lovely as she is, let her sail home and not stay her to vex us and our children after us." (Antenor 1 and the Trojan Elders chatting among themselves. Homer, Iliad 3.155).
Death of Paris
In the course of the tenth year of the war, Helen's new husband Paris, who has been regarded as a coward, became the slayer of Achilles, feared even by Hector, who although the bravest among the brave, had trembled when he met Achilles in single combat, running away and being pursued by him like a hare by a dog around the walls of Troy at the sight of all.
But soon after, Philoctetes, having been cured by Asclepius' son Podalirius, joined the campaign against Troy again, and shot Paris dead in single combat with the poisoned arrows of Heracles.
Helen marries again
While Menelaus outraged Paris' body, the latter's brothers, Helenus and Deiphobus, quarrelled as to which of them should marry Helen; and having Deiphobus been preferred, he married Helen, and Helenus moved his residence to Ida.
This change of residence seems to have made it easier for Odysseus to capture him and learn about the importance of the Palladium. This is what Helen herself says about her new marriage with Deiphobus:
"… when Paris died, and earth concealed his corpse, I should have left his house and sought the Argive fleet, since my marriage was no longer in the hands of gods. That was what I was eager to do; and the warders on the towers and watchmen on the walls can bear me witness, for often they found me seeking to let myself down stealthily by cords from the battlements, but there was that new husband, Deiphobus, that carried me off by force to be his wife …" (Helen to Hecabe 1. Euripides, Daughters of Troy 954).
But again she has not been believed:
"… you assert that you tried to let yourself down from the towers by stealth with twisted cords, as if unwilling to stay? Where were you ever found fastening the noose about your neck, or whetting the knife, as a noble wife would have done in regret for her former husband? (Hecabe 1 to Helen. Euripides, Daughters of Troy 1010).
Helping both Achaeans and Trojans
Some have said that Helen helped the Achaeans during the war; for they tell that when Odysseus entered incognito into Troy as a beggar he was recognized by Helen, who helped him to steal away the Palladium, which he brought to the ships with the aid of Diomedes.
Likewise when Sinon, who having been left behind by the Achaeans during their pretended retreat in order to light a beacon lamp as a signal to them, started signalling with a shining brand beside the tomb of Achilles, Helen too was awake and signalling herself from her chamber to the Achaean fleet to return; for the Wooden Horse was inside the walls, the gates would soon open, and it was time for the Achaeans to make the final assault.
And yet, when the Achaeans were inside the Wooden Horse, Helen went round, calling the different chiefs, and by imitating the voices of each of their wives, tempted them to reveal themselves. She did it so well that Anticlus would have answered, but Odysseus held fast his mouth; and when he tried to escape the pressure of his hands, Odysseus held him harder and Anticlus lost his breath and died.
Immortality of Helen after her return
When the city was taken, Menelaus killed Deiphobus and led Helen to the ships. They wandered for eight years in several Mediterranean countries before returning to Sparta, where they arrived at the time when Agamemnon's son Orestes had just killed Aegisthus and his own mother Clytaemnestra, sister of Helen.
Threatened to be put to death for his crime, Orestes sought Menelaus' help, but being refused, Orestes, in anger against his uncle, tried to kill Helen. They say that on this occasion Apollo saved her and took her to heaven, saying:
"Helen I will conduct to the mansion of Zeus; There men shall adore her, a goddess enthroned beside Hera and Hebe … There she … shall be worshipped for ever with wine outpoured." (Apollo. Euripides, Orestes 1685).
Life in Sparta
Yet it is also told that Odysseus' son Telemachus, while still looking for his father, visited Helen and Menelaus in Sparta to see if he could get some news about him, and at that time it looked like the king and queen of Sparta led a pleasant life in their city. Helen also explained on that occasion how she felt when Odysseus came disguised to Troy:
"I had suffered a change of heart, repenting the infatuation with which Aphrodite blinded me when she lured me to Troy from my own dear country and made me forsake my daughter, my bridal chamber, and a husband who had all one could wish for in the way of brains and good looks." (Helen to Menelaus and Telemachus. Homer, Odyssey 4.260).
The proper thing to say
But, some could think, that was the proper thing to say when she was back home. And had things been different, she would have said otherwise. For Hecabe 1, thinking that Helen had always her eyes fixed on Fortune, once reproached her:
"… when you had come to Troy, and the Argives were on your track, and the mortal combat had begun, whenever tidings came to you of Menelaus' prowess, you would praise him, to grieve my son, because he had so powerful a rival in his love; but if the Trojans prospered, Menelaus was nothing to you." (Hecabe to Helen. Euripides, Daughters of Troy 1004).
Death of Helen
Fortune changes things and puts them upside-down. So when Menelaus died, they say, Helen was driven away from Sparta by Nicostratus and Megapenthes, sons of Menelaus by other women, according to some. As Helen believed Polyxo to be her friend, she went to Rhodes where Polyxo, widow of Tlepolemus who died at Troy, was queen.
But Polyxo, wishing to avenge the death of her husband on Helen, sent servants dressed up as ERINYES against her guest when she was bathing, who seized Helen and hanged her on a tree.
Leonymus, who visited the White Isle in the mouth of the river Danube, says that Helen, after death, was wedded to Achilles, and lived there with him. But others say that Menelaus was made immortal by Hera, and he and Helen live in happiness in the Elysian Fields.
Cicero, De inventione II.1.1–2
Cypria, fragments 1, 9, and 10.
Dio Chrysostom, Discourses.
Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis.
Herodotus, Histories, Book II.
Hesiod, Catalogs of Women and Eoiae.
Homer, Iliad, Book III; Odyssey, Books IV, and XXIII.
Servius, In Aeneida I.526, XI.262
Lactantius Placidus, Commentarii in Statii Thebaida I.21.
Little Iliad, fragment 13.
Ovid, Heroides, XVI.Paris Helenae.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book III.
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, Book III; Epitome.
Sappho, fragment 16.
Sextus Propertius, Elegies, 3.14.
Theocritus, Idylls, XVIII (The Epithalamium of Helen).
Virgil, Aeneid. Book VI.
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